Review: Midwinterblood

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Always, there is an Eric and a Merle; a hare and a loss; and the island of Blessed.

These are the constants.

What changes in the seven stories of Midwinterblood is the time, starting in the future, 2073, and going back in time again and again until the seventh story set in a time so far past it has no date. What changes are who, exactly, Eric and Merle are; and how they connect or don’t. On what is lost. And always there is the hare.

What is happening? What is going on Blessed?

The Good: I adore stories told like this! Going backward — 2073, 2011, 1944, and so on — emphasizes the mystery. To start at the “beginning”, if that is even the start, would reveal all at once — any tension would disappear.

Instead, it’s 2073 and Eric’s work takes him to Blessed, an isolated island. He meets Merle and feels an instant connection. He also finds himself almost seduced by the island himself, forgetting why he’s there. “The sun does  not go down. That is the first thing that Eric Seven notices about Blessed Island. There will be many other strange things that he will notice, before forgetting takes hold of him, but that will come later.

Something is wrong: despite the friendly villagers, something is obviously not right. But what? And that story ends and suddenly the reader is in 2011.

The island is still Blessed, but there are changes, to the island and the people and what is known or not know. Edward, an archeologist, discovers a viking funeral with two skeletons. He meets two villagers: Merle and her son Eric. There are other changes: there was no hotel or place for visitors to stay in 2073; in 2011, a guest house is mentioned. Changes the reader notices, but unknown and unknowable to the characters who know only their time, their place, their knowledge of history.

One thread is followed, then another, and I loved the mystery of it all. And, as well, the horror. The stories include those of war, of ghosts, even a vampire. The words hint at something more, something worse, and how did this story begin? How can it end? “And there was something about the words she used to tell the story that made them realize something bad was going to happen.”

Because I adore the creepiness; because this type of backwards story, with the mystery falling back in time to be discovered, is the type I love. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews (warning: some have much more spoilers than my review): Sonder Books; Reading Rants; The Book Smugglers; educating alice; crossreferencing (Sarah and Mark).

Review: White Crow

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rebecca, 16, is spending six weeks of summer vacation with her father at the seaside town of Winterfold. It’s not a relaxing vacation: she and her father are barely speaking. Her boyfriend doesn’t call. She is alone and lonely when she meets up with Ferelith. Strange, brilliant, uncommon Ferelith. A friendship grows between the two teenage girls, a friendship born of loneliness and something more. Ferelith has been waiting, waiting for something. Or someone. And now Rebecca is here, lovely Rebecca, who doesn’t know or understand who Ferelith is. Ferelith wants to explore Winterfold’s dark past, and she wants company, whether or not Rebecca is willing.

Over a hundred years before, another unlikely friendship had sprung up in Winterfold, one between the village’s rector and a French doctor. The rector is obsessed with Heaven and Hell, the doctor, with what happens after a person dies. Together, they make a bloody pact to find the answers.

Answers that Rebecca and Ferelith are about to discover.

The Good: By this point, you may be aware that I enjoy both a good story and how that story is told.

The story: lonely, angry Rebecca. Smart, manipulative Ferelith. An odd, uneven friendship. Ferelith is brilliant but her interactions with people are distant. As she says early on, “I continued my education in a more important way, through the observation of everyone around me, because nothing is more important to learn in life than the interaction of a human being with another human being.” Her view of life is unique and she is drawn to the dark. “I think I was waiting, though I didn’t know what I was waiting for.” Ferelith creates situations to draw Rebecca into her petty thieving, trespassing, and explorations and Rebecca is only half-aware of Ferelith’s manipulations.

Winterfold is a dying town, literally. It is falling into the sea. House, churches, graveyards, have all disappeared beneath the relentless waves. Ancient, abandoned buildings give Ferelith much to explore.  (As an aside, Winterfold is based on a real town, Dunwich. I now want to go there on vacation.)

An unnamed rector lived in Winterfold a century before. His story is one of concern about Hell, of wanting to know what Heaven is like, and the doctor he meets who has an experiment to try to find the answers. All they need is volunteers. The dark rooms where the experiments took place draws Ferelith, and she drags Rebecca along.

How will this madness and horror end?

That is the story: unequal friendships, buried secrets, madness, blood, and the questions. Is there a God? Is there life after death? A Heaven or Hell? Angels or devils?

Now, how the story is told — that is where the book shifts into brilliance. Three voices, three points of view: Rebecca, Ferelith, the rector.

Ferelith, speaking in first person, speaking as if what she writes about has already taken place. All her chapters bear cryptic headings: I’m Not Dead. Catholic Day. Her thoughts are deep, layered.

Rebecca is more straightforward, third person, firmly in the present, talking about what is happening now, in a linear fashion with dates as chapter headings. It is not two people telling their different versions of the same event, or taking turns telling their tale. It is Rebecca’s story, with Ferelith letting the reader know the shadows and complexity which Rebecca is unaware of. Ferelith’s voice makes this compelling, suspenseful, scary, and Rebecca’s voice keeps the story grounded in reality and gives the reader to person to connect with.

The story of the two girls in the present is interspersed with the journal entries of an unnamed Rector where he asks questions about Hell, and gradually reveals just what is being done to discover the existence an afterlife. The reader learns what is happening, what happened, just in time to watch as the girls stumble upon the truth.

White Crow scared the hell out of me. But why? Not because of the horrors of the past. Rather, it’s because Ferelith so smoothly manipulates Rebecca, putting her in danger that is physical, emotional, and mental, playing on Rebecca’s trust and need and loneliness. It’s because the rector is so willing to rationalize events and actions, including manipulation and betraying trust.

Because White Crow scared me for all the right reasons. Because the image of Winterfold disappearing a foot at time haunts me. Because the triple narration showed just exactly how to use different voices and different perspectives. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: Revolver

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan. 2010. Review copy from publisher. 2011 Printz Honor book.

The Plot: 1910. Giron, the Arctic Circle. Sig, 14, is alone in his family’s cabin except for the dead body of his father, Einar. A stranger knocks on the door — a stranger who says he knows Sig, knows his father, and has been hunting them for ten years. The stranger says he is owed something by Einar. The stranger has a revolver. What the stranger does not suspect is that Sig also has a revolver.

The Good: It’s easy to see why this earned a Printz Honor. Terrifically sparse writing, full characters, a tight plot, setting so real you put on another sweater.

The solitariness and isolation of the Arctic Circle at the turn of the century is mirrored in the book itself. Only a handful of characters appear or are talked about; Sig’s whole existence is not just in remote Arctic cabins but also involves only his parents and his older sister. This confinement makes the appearance of the threatening stranger all the more disturbing. 

Revolver tells two stories, one in 1910 where Einar lies dead from a fall through ice in subzero temperatures and one in 1899, when Einar was a young man with a wife, two small children, and a thirst to find gold in Nome, Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. The past explains that Wolff knows Einar but it doesn’t explain why he has tracked this small family for so many years.

Sedgwick’s writing is tight: no words are wasted. It is deceptive in its simplicity, because while it makes this book a “quick read” there are layers with much being conveyed in a few words. Every word matters, much like every movement, every bite of food, every moment matters in 1910 and 1899.

The first sentence — “Even the dead tell stories” — is at first an introduction to Einar’s death but also becomes literal as the dead — Einar — tells his 1899 story.

Because of the writing style, the reader is told just enough about the historical aspects of the story to create the flavor of the past. Details are only given for things that matter to the story: the process of testing the quality of the gold found in Nome, the mechanics of how the revolver works.

Historical fiction,  yes. It is also a mystery: what does Wolff want? Did Einar do something to warrant Wolff’s obsessive ten year search? Finally, it is a thriller: what will Sig do, especially when Wolff’s threats of violence and murder escalate to include Sig’s sister Anna?

What drives the book is the question about what young Sig will do — will he pull out the revolver and shoot Wolff? Sig’s mother viewed the gun with distaste (“You mustn’t let him touch it. You mustn’t. Guns are evil.”) while Einar’s father saw it as an amazing machine (“The boy must learn respect for it while he’s young.” “The Colt is the finest machine I have ever seen in my life. It does one thing, and it does it superbly well.”) As Sig struggles with his decision about using the gun (shoot Wolff or don’t shoot Wolff) he is also struggling with the two different ways he’s been taught.

SPOILERS.

Because I want to discuss Wolff’s motivation as well as Sig’s choice. And even now, I’m trying not to be too spoilery…  This is the type of book that demands discussion. How can it be discussed without, well, talking about what happens and doesn’t happen?

First, Wolff. As the story in 1899/1900 unfolds, the reader learns about the connection between Wolff and Einar. What Einar did and did not do, what Wolff did or did not do, is both surprising and shocking. As is Sig’s response. There is much here to talk about, in terms of responsibility and consequences. If you’ve read Revolver, what do you think about why Wolff chased Einar and Einar’s own actions?

Second, Sig’s choice at the end. As he explains, “There’s always a third choice in life. Even if you think you’re stuck between two impossible choices, there’s always a third way.” Seriously, stop reading now if you don’t like spoilers.

OK.

Sig’s choice as he sees it: Shoot Wolff. Don’t shoot Wolff. The “third choice” involves Sig using what his father has taught him about how the revolver works to create a situation that injures Wolff. So, yes, strictly speaking Sig has two options (shoot / don’t shoot) and chooses a third that is neither of those. Viewed more broadly, aren’t his options really inflicting harm or not inflicting harm on Wolff? His decision to inflict harm in a manner other than shooting Wolf does so much damage to Wolff that, arguably, it ultimately leads to Wolff’s death years later. This book will make for fascinating discussion on that aspect alone — is this really a third choice? Is what Sig did “better” than shooting Wolff?